Veterans Treatment Court: How It Works and Why It Succeeds
The Bencher—July/August 2022
By Judge David Abbott (Ret.)
For nearly six years, I was privileged to preside over the Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) in Sacramento, California. With the encouragement and support of the offices of the district attorney (DA), public defender (PD), and the probation department, we were able to begin a VTC in Sacramento County. VTC is one of several programs in Sacramento included in a growing trend in California and nationwide commonly referred to as collaborative or restorative justice.
During my tenure as a jurist, I sentenced many criminal defendants, granting probation to some and ordering others into confinement in county jail or state prison. It soon became obvious to me in most cases there was only a slim chance a defendant would be rehabilitated and become a productive member of mainstream society. There were too many obstacles for that person to overcome, not the least of which was a criminal record that prevented a meaningful return to gainful employment. These obstacles were not overcome by simple compliance with the terms and conditions of probation or parole. The general recidivism rate has remained steady at about 70% for decades.
However, I became aware that a newly created drug court was achieving success in lowering recidivism among drug-dependent defendants by what is best described as a more “hands-on” approach, directed at rehabilitating individuals by enabling them to deal effectively with the specific problem that was responsible for their criminal conduct—namely, drug addiction. Though I never presided in the drug court, I could see the results when I monitored the progress of defendants I sentenced. Therefore, when I was given the opportunity to organize a VTC in Sacramento, I welcomed it with open arms.
But there was another reason for my interest in VTC. I served from 1974 to 1978 as a judge advocate in the Marine Corps, and I saw many of my fellow Marines who served in Vietnam struggle with the lingering effects of fighting in that war without remedy or recompense. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was unrecognized in psychology as a behavioral disorder and veterans of the Vietnam era were largely ignored. An opportunity to help veterans of any armed conflict had a special meaning for me.
VTC in California is governed by Penal Code Section 1170.9, which requires that there be a nexus between the criminal conduct charged and certain mental health conditions arising from military service. Specifically, if a veteran experienced sexual trauma or has PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), or a substance abuse disorder stemming from their service in the military and their criminal conduct was caused by one or more of those conditions, they are eligible for participation in VTC. Successful completion of the VTC program will result in the record of conviction being expunged and waiver of all fines and fees imposed by the conviction, though the obligation to pay restitution to the victim(s) must be satisfied.
Notably, admission to VTC is not a “free pass” or “get out of jail free card.” The key element in this program is treatment. Consistent failure to comply with the treatment plan will result in deletion from the program and execution of the sentence imposed, returning the veteran to jail or prison, with payment of all fines, fees, and penalties. The challenges presented by the treatment plan can be quite rigorous, particularly when addressing the effects of PTSD, TBI, sexual trauma, and undergoing addiction therapy.
In order for a veteran to be admitted to the VTC program, the judge, DA, and PD must all agree the person should be admitted as a participant. This consensus or “buy-in” is why the VTC program and others like it are referred to as collaborative. Everyone involved must be committed to the treatment plan and its goals for that individual veteran.
This does not mean the prosecutor is simply waiting for the veteran’s failure to comply so they can be returned to prison. Nor does it mean the defense counsel is ignoring missteps by their client or standing on claims of privilege to prevent relevant information from being considered. All sides are cooperating in an effort to enable the veteran to succeed and ultimately qualify for graduation from the program. While there are consequences for non-compliance, the program is not conducted on a “zero-tolerance” basis. For example, if a participant tests positive for drugs or alcohol or fails to report for testing, he or she is not summarily deleted from the program. Imposition of community service, or perhaps 24–48 hours of confinement, is ordered and equally important. The treatment plan is re-evaluated to create a structure where the transgression can be effectively avoided in the future.
When a veteran is accepted into VTC, his or her entire personal situation is examined, beginning with a determination of whether the person is homeless, as many are. With help from the Veterans Administration (VA) and various community connections, the veteran is placed in an acceptable sheltered living environment. It may be a rehabilitation facility, group residence, or subsidized apartment, but one of the first objectives is to get the person off the street. This evaluation process includes the veteran’s justice officer (VJO), who is a representative of the VA, and the probation officer assigned to the VTC program. They meet with the veteran to develop a treatment plan and establish all that is expected of the veteran in the program, to include regular and random drug and alcohol testing and weekly visits by the probation officer. The VJO arranges a thorough examination of the veteran’s psychological condition and formulates a treatment plan to address PTSD, TBI, substance abuse, effects of sexual trauma, or a combination of these conditions.
Upon acceptance into VTC, the veteran appears in court and executes a contract accepting the conditions of the program, followed by entry of a plea of guilty or no contest in exchange for a sentence agreed upon by the DA and defense counsel, with approval from the court. Pursuant to the plea, sentence is imposed and execution is suspended pending participation in the VTC program. If the person is represented by private counsel, that attorney usually withdraws from the case and the public defender is appointed to assume representation through completion of the program. A minimum of one year is required for completion of the program, and often success is not achieved for two or three years.
An extremely important element of VTC is the assignment of a mentor for each participant. The mentor is a military veteran, often with combat experience, who volunteers and offers support and guidance to the participant and helps the veteran to remain in compliance with program requirements. Because the mentor is a veteran, there is a bond that develops with the participant that strengthens the person’s determination to meet the program objectives and succeed to graduation. The mentor and veteran meet as often as needed, but bi-weekly at a minimum. This is a unique aspect of VTC when compared to other collaborative court programs and contributes greatly to its overall success.
VTC is administered by a multi-disciplinary team (MDT), consisting of the judge, DA, PD, probation officer, VJO, and members of the court staff as needed. The MDT meets before every court appearance to discuss each veteran’s progress or lack thereof, what has been done, and what needs to be done differently, if anything. At the outset, the veteran appears in court every two weeks and is questioned by the judge about his or her activities, classes, and any problems. Although the judge is aware of these matters because they were discussed at the MDT meeting, they are discussed with the veteran to give the veteran a chance to articulate what is happening from his or her perspective. It also shows the veteran that the judge is indeed involved and informed and, most important, that the judge is concerned and interested in the veteran’s case and progress.
As the court appearances progress, their frequency diminishes, and if satisfactory progress is made, the veteran is allowed to “level up,” progressing to levels two, three, and four and ultimately graduation. With especially notable progress or performance, a gift card is awarded. It has small monetary value but is appreciated by the veteran as a symbol of progress and achievement.
Treatment is stressed as the highest priority in the program, for without it, the veteran cannot progress and succeed. Therefore, although it is desirable for the veteran to have a job or be enrolled in school, those activities cannot take precedence over treatment and attending classes such as addiction rehabilitation therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, batterers treatment, PTSD therapy, TBI therapy, a 12-step program, or sessions with a licensed clinical therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Most treatment is received on an outpatient basis, but some modalities require inpatient therapy for three to six months.
VTC requires commitment from the individual veteran, but also from the justice partners overseeing the program. By working together and collaborating, positive results have been achieved. I mentioned the general recidivism rate as being 70%. The recidivism rate among graduates of VTC is less than 5%. Moreover, we have graduates of the program who return as mentors to support the participants. Some veterans have received college degrees while in the program, and others have pursued bachelor’s and master’s degrees after graduating. Some of our participants have testified before the state legislature to increase funding for housing and similar programs.
By design, our U.S. justice system, and particularly our criminal justice system, is adversarial in nature. However, collaborative justice is directed at correcting the problem that led to criminal conduct in order to prevent continuing criminality. VTC is a fine example of this approach and how it can succeed. Prosecution, defense, judge, VA, VJO, and probation direct their energy and effort toward rehabilitating the individual, with a high degree of success. I have described my work in VTC as my most rewarding experience as a judge because our level of success showed me the interests of justice were well-served.
David Abbott is a retired Superior Court judge from Sacramento, California, where he served as a trial judge for 18 years. He presided for five years over the Veterans Treatment Court in Sacramento, which he describes as “my most fulfilling experience as a judge.” He is a military veteran of the Vietnam era, serving as a judge advocate in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1974 to 1978.